#Openbook – What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?


This week’s topic is an interesting one for me. I have given it some thought and  concluded that, other than for While the Bombs Fell, I have not deliberately based any of my characters to date on real people. On reflection, however, real people have influenced my characters, as have the fictional characters from the many books I have read.

When I wrote While the Bombs Fell, I imagined my mom as being a little bit like Laura Ingalls in her Little House series and I built a few of Elsie’s characteristics around my idea of Laura based on my reading of this series. Obviously, as this is a fictionalised biography of my mom’s early life, these subtle additions are melded together with her actual personality traits and how she has portrayed her memories of herself and her family.

I have loved the Little House series all my life and I have read the whole series countless times. I wanted to create a book that depicted regular life for a small girl growing up in a country town in England during World War II in a similar manner as Laura did in her books. I always found the details of her everyday life and how her Ma made cheese, butter and even straw hats totally fascinating. The details relating to her Pa such as how he cleaned his gun and smoked meat from the animals he kills also delighted me. Of course, other people would build up their own ideas of Laura so my view of her could be very different from that of someone else.

While the bombs fell 1

The character of Sir Chocolate, from my Sir Chocolate series of children’s books, was influenced by my reading of Mr Pink Whistle, the series written by Enid Blyton. I wanted Sir Chocolate to have similar characteristics of kindness and a desire to right the world’s wrongs. Sir Chocolate is the go to person in Chocolate Land when there is a problem in the village. Lady Sweet and he, together with various of their friends, are always able to solve the situation through co-operation and teamwork.

My writing of Through the Nethergate, had a few literary influences too. The character of Katharine, the nun who runs away with her lover, William, reminded me a bit of Tess from Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Like Katharine, Tess’ life also ends in tragedy as a result of her love for a man and his manipulation of her.

Father Merton shares the characteristic of having an open and inquiring mind, despite his extensive book knowledge, with Professor Van Helsing of Dracula fame. Father Merton also takes a practical approach to solving various crisis’s in a manner slightly reminiscent of Ben Mears in Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. He also shares some characteristics of two ministers I had a lot of regard for, one of whom died unexpectedly in 2016, in that he is guided by his own sense of what is right and exhibits a common sense approach to the interpretations and dictates of the church.


Grandfather Baker shares a lot of my father’s characteristics. He is innovative and a survivor. He is a big reader of books about specific things that interest him and he uses that knowledge to help the group survive the unusual situations they face in the book. He is also stubborn and a strong leader, just like my Dad.

In my new novella, A ghost and his gold, my main character, Pieter van Zyl, a burgher who fights for his country during the Second Anglo Boer War shares his belief that a better life can be attained for his people with Winston Smith from 1984 by George Orwell. Pieter is a quite and reticent character, with a rare interest in books for his time and situation. He has a much clearer idea of what could happen in the Anglo Boer War than most of his peers.

Of course, my characters develop in their own way in the specific circumstances of my stories, but my admiration for the strong characteristics demonstrated by certain book characters, and for some people who have impressed me during my life, have a subtle influence on how I chose to portray my own characters. I think this comes from having spent far more of my life with my nose in a book than actually socializing with people.

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40 thoughts on “#Openbook – What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?

  1. What an interesting browse through your books and the influences that helped you develop the characters. I’m so excited to finally pick up Through the Nethergate, even more so after reading this post. Heading to Amazon right now!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To a certain degree that is true, John. I have started building my character up front and basically assigning characteristics to them so that they demonstrate the values, etc. that I want for their role in my book. That is why I don’t think they are really modeled off real people although if I know someone with the specific characteristic I am portraying, I may built that aspect into my character. I hope that makes sense.

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      1. Completely…the “write what you know” covers a bunch of areas like history, geography, professional knowledge etc, but many a character has come from the best – and worst – of our interactions with others well..

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        1. Yes, I understand what you mean. I find it easier to write about South African or English history as I have spent a lot of time in both places. The US is a little bit scary for me as I haven’t been there. One of my stories in Nightmareland, a forthcoming anthology I have three stories in, is set in the USA and based on a US myth about a witch.

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  2. Thanks for sharing your inspiration for your characters, Robbie. Sometimes we only realise later who our inspiration was, but I agree that we’re always going to reflect details of characters and true people who have an impact on us. All the best.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sir Chocolate sounds like my kind of series!
    I often base poems on real life people but only with there permission although they cannot be identified. Others are a conglomeration of people with similar issues which I combine for better impact.

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  4. I’m always surprised when characters come to me. I start with a name, an opening sentence, and then KAPOW, he or she starts making mischief. 🙂 Seriously, I do think that my characters are their own inventions, but they may have a trait or two of different people I’ve met over the years.
    I enjoy your writing, Robbie, as well as your poetry. xo

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  5. A very interesting and enlightening post, Robbie. I don’t write myself and have often wondered where these wonderful characters I get to know in novels come from.
    I have just bought ‘While the Bombs Fell’ not just because I became interested in your post and wanted to read one of your books but because I live six miles from Bungay; it’s my closest shopping town.

    Liked by 1 person

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